While You Were Sleeping

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

COV_iranFlag This week has seen a spurt of would-be terror plots that painfully highlights the reality that our world is still not as safe as it should be, despite the two wars still being waged against purported terrorist regimes. The most notable occurred in the heart of New York City as Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad has confessed to being the mastermind behind the car bomb that, luckily, did not explode in Times Square. Shahzad was just barely apprehended as he sat on an Emirates flight set for Dubai.

The tiny Gulf State of Kuwait also got its own dose of a potential terror-plot in the making when security personnel unraveled a tangled web of deceit within its own borders. A ‘sleeper cell’ network of spies, apparently working covertly for the Iranian government’s Revolutionary Guard, was exposed this past week much to the surprise of the denizens of the region. For weeks, local Kuwaiti newspapers have been reporting renewed ties between Kuwait and Iran as well as a couple of deals, like oil exports. By all appearances the sleeper cell was put into place to gather intelligence on primary Kuwaiti and American targets, in the event that America decided to take a preemptive military strike against Iran. Iranian President has always promised to lash out at any Gulf neighbor that allows its land to be used by the US and its allies in a show of force against Iran.

Kuwait’s security forces have arrested at least eleven high-ranking Kuwaiti citizens that worked in close proximity to both the interior and defense ministries as well as several Arab nationals whose nationalities have not been released. During the bust, Kuwaiti security personnel raided the home of one of the leaders of the sleeper cell and found a great deal of incriminating evidence including maps for sensitive targets in Kuwait, hi-tech gadgetry and an estimated $250,000 stockpile of cold hard cash. Key players within the sleeper cell have also revealed to Kuwait security forces that they were instructed to recruit new members from Kuwait that were sympathetic to the plight of Iranians.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait was chosen as a primary location for the Iranian sleeper cell to settle in unnoticed. There are several American army bases littered throughout the country and Kuwait is a key stopping point for American troops headed to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the strongest reason is most likely the friendship that Kuwait and America have built ever since the 1991 Desert Storm war, where America and its allies literally pulled Kuwait out of the clutches of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Word out of Iran is that the whole fiasco is merely a chance for Kuwait to discredit the country. However, the evidence is strongly leaning towards the validity of the sleeper cell and the Iranian governments full knowledge of its existence. And according to the Kuwaiti government there are still at least seven more members of the sleeper cell who have not yet been apprehended. But what is most disturbing is that interrogations with the suspects are slowly revealing that the espionage stretches clean across the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) member states with several Gulf countries supposedly having an invisible sleeper cell operating from within. Leaders from the Arab world are expected to meet in the foreseeable future to join forces in combating Iranian spy rings.

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How Dubai Unraveled a Homicide, Frame by Frame

March 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

A mix of old-fashioned legwork and high-tech razzle-dazzle, scouring hundreds of hours of surveillance videos, helped police home in on suspects in a Hamas man’s slaying, blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

By Borzou Daragahi, LA Times

  • Hatem Moussa / Associated Press

Reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Lacking witnesses but blessed with hundreds of hours of video, the cops and spooks worked the case of the slain weapons smuggler like a movie in reverse.

Dubai’s cameras never blink. The security system allows law enforcement to track anyone, from the moment they get off an airplane, to the immigration counter where their passport is scanned, through the baggage claim area to the taxi stand where cameras record who gets into what cars, which log their locations through the city’s automated highway toll system, all the way to their hotels, which also have cameras.

Which brings us to the Bustan Rotana hotel on the night of Jan. 19, and an assassination made to look like a run-of-the-mill heart attack.

The dead man, as the world now knows, was a 50-year-old Hamas commander named Mahmoud Mabhouh, wanted by Israel in the killing of two Israeli soldiers. Once Dubai investigators narrowed the time of death to 8 to 8:30 p.m., they quickly found that seven people in the Bustan Rotana had no business being there.

Using facial recognition software, a source familiar with the investigation said, a team of 20 investigators pored over hours of security camera videos to sketch out a picture of the suspects’ movements and accomplices, a group that has grown to at least 27 people.

They tracked down taxi drivers and grilled them about the suspects. They even traced the trip of a female suspect to a shopping center and discovered what she bought.

For years, the United Arab Emirates has been using its considerable oil wealth to build up its defense and security infrastructure, including the National Security Agency, the secret police, which is playing a key role in the investigation.

"They buy the best," said Kamal Awar, a retired Lebanese army officer and editor of Beirut-based Defense 21, a regional military magazine. "They bought the latest technology in satellite and communications."

In the end, a mixture of high-tech razzle-dazzle and old-fashioned investigative work cracked the case.

"What it takes is a few skilled police officers putting stuff on the board and figuring out who relates to what," said Col. Patrick Lang, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who served in the Persian Gulf for years. "It’s not a magic thing. It’s a question of thinking clearly."

A homicide in disguise

The middle-aged man was splayed out dead in his hotel room as if he’d gone into cardiac arrest. The door was chained from the inside. Coroners surmised that he’d died of natural causes.

But one doctor noticed an abnormality in the blood. He later spotted strange puncture marks on a leg and behind an ear. And after the Palestinian militant group Hamas informed Dubai authorities that the dead man was Mahmoud Mabhouh, they decided it couldn’t hurt to double-check. Blood samples were sent abroad. Days passed.

When the toxicology reports showed that he’d been given a lethal dose of a powerful anesthetic, Dubai authorities knew they had a high-profile homicide on their hands. Though Mabhouh was no friend of the Emirates, authorities were furious about the killing.

"The whole operation was based on one key assumption: that the death will be recorded as a natural death," Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai think tank, said of the assassins. "And that was the downfall. The reason why they were so careless was because they thought there would be no investigation."

At least half of the passports used by the 27 suspects bore the names and registration numbers of Israeli dual citizens who held British, Irish, Australian, French or German passports, leading many experts to believe that Israel’s spy outfit, Mossad, had forged the identities.

Israeli officials have been tight-lipped about the case and refused to confirm or deny the nation’s involvement. None of the suspects captured on video or identified in passport photos, including a bottle-blond and an assortment of beefy, balding guys wearing rectangular glasses, have come forward to deny or confirm their involvement.

Interpol announced last week that it was joining the international investigation.

"Investigative information provided by the authorities in Dubai bore out the international links and broad scope of the number of people involved, as well as the role of two ‘teams’ of individuals identified by the Dubai police as being linked to al-Mabhouh’s murder," Interpol said in a statement.

An unlikely place to strike

Perhaps no hotel in Dubai is less amenable to an assassination than the upscale Bustan Rotana, in the Garhoud district adjacent to the airport. The circular building’s rooms are arrayed around a vast airy atrium.

"If you’re sitting in the lobby you can see the door to every room," said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Affairs, a think tank with offices in Dubai and Beirut. "If there’s a scuffle, you can see and hear it."

Security experts around the world have also puzzled over the apparent size of the hit team: 27 bearers of Western passports and, according to Hamas, two or three Palestinians.

Some security experts said the assassins knew what they were doing, organizing themselves into evacuation, surveillance and execution teams.

But others see a classic bureaucratic blunder.

"You have a surveillance team and a counter-surveillance team and the technical people as well as the security people around the perimeter," said Lang, the former U.S. military intelligence officer. "Once you start doing that, you have to have shifts. You have to have two or three sets of these people and rotate them. Once you start doing it that way you’re going to have a lot of people."

The assailants apparently entered the hotel room without any struggle, suggesting that someone on the team knew Mabhouh. A fatal dose of the powerful muscle relaxant succinylcholine quickly paralyzes its recipient and ultimately mimics the effects of a heart attack. It should have killed Mabhouh within 15 minutes.

But something must have gone wrong, said the source with knowledge of the investigation, because the assassins pressed a pillow against Mabhouh’s face for one or two minutes until he suffocated. "They were panicking for one reason or another," said the source.

The hit team tidied up the room and laid Mabhouh out as though he’d suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead.

Dubai Police Chief. Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim told satellite channel Al Arabiya that "the murderers tried their best to mislead us."

A knack for putting things together

Just as police were about to conclude that it was a natural death, a Palestinian man trying to contact Mabhouh learned of his death and telephoned his family in Gaza. It was only then that Hamas officials contacted Dubai police, Tamim said.

"Dubai police are very good at piecing together crimes," analyst Karasik said. "I’ve seen it before when you had robberies or murders occur and you’ll forget about the story and then six months later the guys are arrested via Interpol, brought back here and then they disappear into the system."

Although Mabhouh’s assassins managed to enter the country, kill him and get out without getting caught, the case has generated what most analysts consider unwelcome fallout for Israel, which most suspect of being behind the attack.

Authorities are now reexamining the death of Faisal Husseini, a charismatic Palestinian leader who died in his Kuwait hotel room in 2001.

"Now we know their tradecraft," said Alani. "We know how they operate."

If Mossad agents were behind the attack, the operation blew the identities of 27 agents; it takes up to five years to train each agent.

"They’ll never be able to go outside of Israel again, even with disguises," Karasik said. "Biometrics means all of the contours of your face are on file."

daragahi@latimes.com

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

mall_of_the_emirates_dubai_03

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Stolen glances, quiet giggles and flushed faces are just a few of the hallmarks of mingling with the opposite sex in the Middle East. Dating is wholly unacceptable and considered politically incorrect in the conservative Gulf region, which applies the letter of the Islamic law when it comes to relations between members of the opposite sex. However, as with most social aspects of life that governments attempt to control, where there is a will there is a way.

Tweens, teens and twenty-some things in the Middle East have come up with their own brand of dating that is not only secretive but also kept largely away from the public eye. Since a suitor driving up to a girl’s home is not an option, many Arab youths have capitalized on the abundance of luxury malls in the region. Many boys and girls cruise the malls looking for someone that catches their eye. Most malls are so enormous that is it easy to slip away from one’s family should the occasion arise. And while the ‘hunt’ may be extremely public, communications are kept excruciatingly secret. In many cases the boy will walk past a girl that catches his eye and slip his phone number to her on a piece of paper. It’s really up to her what she does with it, as some girls might call the boy and others may simply crunch the paper into a nearby garbage can. And in other cases both boys and girls interested in this new form of dating use technology to hook up.

Bluetooth cellular phone technology is the biggest ally for Arab youths wanting to find that special someone. Amorous boys and girls often send out random Bluetooth messages in both Arabic and English. Then they wait to see who will respond and reply back. It’s a little known fact that Bluetooth messaging has ignited countless numbers of romances in the Gulf. Unfortunately, many married men and women that happen to have their Blue Tooth switched on in the vicinity often get caught up in the wide-scoped message, which can create suspicion within their own union.

Once the match is made, actually going out on a date is almost a mission impossible. In the conservative Middle East, males enjoy more freedom than their female counterparts. For a girl to successfully get away from her parent’s watchful eyes she would have to lie and, most likely, enlist the help of some of her girlfriends to turn the date into a reality. And the date itself typically takes place on a local beach or garden, as it would be impractical to go to a restaurant or even the movies.

Two of the most relaxed Middle Eastern countries, when it comes to cruising for dates, are Kuwait and Bahrain. The opportunities for meeting are immense and there is very little enforcement when it comes to youths of the opposite sex scoping each other out. Contrastingly, Saudi Arabia takes a hard line against co-mingling and has its own religious police force to maintain segregation between the sexes. Even the UAE is becoming more stringent when it comes to public displays of affection.

The reality of this secretive form of dating is that Arab youths are dealing with adult issues that they may not be ready to cope with due to lack of sexual education in the region. They also lack parental support and intuition since the dating falls far below most parent’s radar. It’s very common to read in local newspapers about a young girl running off with a boyfriend. Instances of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and ‘date rape’ are on the rise. Unfortunately, due to the secretive nature of relationships between youths in the Gulf and most Arab governments unwillingness to admit that there is a problem, statistics revealing the magnitude of the issue are not readily available.

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Dubai Officials’ Confidence-Building Britain, US Trip

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Amran Abocar and Steve Slater

2009-12-16T115052Z_26914839_GM1E5CG1J5P01_RTRMADP_3_DUBAI

An investor looks at stock information at the Dubai Financial Market December 16, 2009.   REUTERS/Mosab Omar

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Two top Dubai officials are visiting Britain and the United States over the coming days to rebuild investor confidence after neighboring Abu Dhabi helped bail out the emirate’s flagship company.

A source close to the government said the officials were already in London and would be in New York on Thursday and Washington on Friday to meet financial and political leaders.

“This is the next step in Dubai’s commitment to greater transparency,” said the source.

“They will spend the next few days meeting financial, economic and political leaders in London, New York and Washington, D.C. to discuss the actions taken this week to stabilize global markets.”

The emirate, famous for its man-made islands in the shape of palms and for other infrastructure projects, rocked global markets on November 25 with a request for a standstill agreement on $26 billion of debt linked to Dubai World and its two main property units, Nakheel and Limitless World.

The roadshow is being led by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, chairman of Dubai’s Supreme Fiscal Committee and the uncle of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Until recently he was best known as leader of the Emirates airline, but his public profile has risen since the debt crisis erupted.

Also on the trip is Mohammed al-Shaibani, deputy chairman of the same committee. He heads Sheikh Mohammed’s court and is chief executive of the Investment Corporation Dubai, which oversees the government’s investment portfolio.

‘Comprehensive Solution’

Earlier this week, Abu Dhabi, which produces 90 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ oil exports, provided $10 billion of financial aid to its fellow UAE member to meet the debt obligations of Dubai World until the end of April and to stave off a bond default by Nakheel.

Some $4.1 billion of the rescue funding helped Nakheel repay an Islamic bond, or sukuk, on Tuesday, a day after its due date.

The Abu Dhabi lifeline came in the form of bonds, at similar terms to a $10 billion bond issue to the UAE central bank in February, which carried a coupon of 4 percent per annum for the five-year, fixed-term issue.

Dubai also announced this week it would implement immediately an insolvency law modeled on U.S. and British practices in the event Dubai World needs to seek protection from its creditors. Meanwhile, Dubai’s ruler ordered the creation of a tribunal, headed by three international judges, to oversee any disputes between Dubai World and its creditors.

“They want to explain what happened this week,” said another source close to the government. “It’s very much the transparency message and to discuss the fact they presented a comprehensive solution.”

With the bond repayment out of the way, Dubai World must now agree a standstill with creditors, allowing it time to undergo a massive restructuring. It is slated to meet representatives from some 90 banks in Dubai on Monday.

(Editing by Andrew Callus and Kenneth Barry)

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